5 Ways to Make 2020 the Year of the Brain

As we welcome in a brand new year, almost half of us will continue a tradition that originated back in 153 B.C. The Romans began each year by making promises to the god Janus for whom the month of January is named.  Janus is always depicted with two faces, one on the front of his head and one on the back, so that he could reflect back on the past and look forward to the future at the same time.  

 A survey conducted about New Year’s resolutions published by Inc. found that the top resolutions for 2019 were eating healthier (71%), exercising more (65%), and losing weight (54%). Statistically, these have been the most common goals year after year. While we all seem to focus on improving the body, why not make brain improvements part of the plan, this year?

Thanks to advances in science and technology, we know that the cells we are born with don’t last forever.  Typically, our cells have a life span of about 7 years unless they are killed or damaged. For example, an over production of cortisol literally shrinks brain cells, pierces the cell walls, and eventually kills them.  The good news is that through the process of neurogenesis, we can create new ones even into our senior years. Taking care of the brain is equally as important as taking care of the body - especially as we age.  Here are 5 ways to make 2020 the Year of the Brain.

1. Learn Something New Every Day

Our brains have this incredible ability to make new neurons and new connections throughout our lives. The best way to foster neurogenesis is to engage in stimulating activities and learning news things. Cultivate a new hobby, learn a new language, or research a topic that interests you. The brain is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.  

2. Amp up the Antioxidants

Neuroscientists have discovered that when we engage in challenging mental tasks, the brain not only needs more fuel but it needs better fuel.  When the brain is working overtime, it produces a lot of oxidants or free radicals.  These are molecules that are missing electrons so they rob other cells creating more damaged cells that steal electrons from other healthy cells. Free radicals have been linked to cancer, heart disease, premature aging and other age-related diseases. But one of the most common effects of free radical damage is memory loss.  

There is a hero for every villain, and antioxidants would be that hero… and not just because it gives us a reason to drink red wine.  Foods high in antioxidants—blueberries, spinach, kale, dark chocolate, as well as red wine—kill the evil radicals and promote healthy brain cells and healthy brain function. In addition, the relationship between exercise and cognition has been well established. But, new studies suggest that mild exercise combined with antioxidants may be an effective non-pharmacological strategy for preventing or improving cognitive function and brain health, and for slowing cognitive decline.

3. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate! 

The brain is 70 to 80 percent water. When it's active 10 to 12 hours a day, it gets dehydrated and that water content needs to be replenished.  A 2011 study found that even mild dehydration decreased vigilance and memory and increased tension, anxiety, and fatigue. If you really want your brain to be operating at maximum efficiency, consider making “super-hydrating” part of your daily routine. Also, it's not just how much water you drink that matters; when you drink it matters, too. Start your day with at least one glass of water and follow it up with at least three more before lunch.    

If a second cup of coffee is your idea of a “full breakfast,” you should know that coffee is a short-term solution that creates a long-term problem. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it can give you a boost in energy.  However, consuming caffeine on an empty stomach sends it directly to the bloodstream triggering the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and norepinephrine. At the same time, it depletes serotonin. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter released in the brain that contributes to an overall sense of well-being and emotional balance.  It is also responsible for regulating some pretty important bodily functions including sleep cycles, pain control, food cravings, and digestion. Your best bet is to decrease caffeine consumption and eliminate sugary sodas completely.

4. Feast on the Good Fats

What’s all the brouhaha about the benefits of omega-3?  Primarily found in fish, some nuts and seeds, omega-3 is one fat that is your friend. About 60% of your brain is made of fat, and half of that fat is the omega-3 kind. Not only do omega-3s perform a number of jobs such as building cell membranes throughout the body and brain, they also provide cognitive benefits including improving learning and memory and helping to fight against such mental disorders as depression and mood disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia. There is also evidence that they have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, as well.   

It’s important to note that all fish are not created equal – at least in the Omega 3 category.  Salmon, mackerel and herring have the highest omega 3 content while cod, snapper and tuna packed in water have levels too small to count.  Wild caught, as opposed to farmed, tend to have higher levels. If you only change one eating habit for physical and cognitive health, the most significant habit you can change is to eliminate the bad fats and replace them with the good fats. 

5. Give it a Rest

Neuroscience tells us that sleep contributes to overall well-being and happiness, but we are learning a lot more about the impact of sleep on brain function. Recent research shows that a lack of sleep is directly correlated to emotional instability, diminished memory, and erratic decision-making. Brain scans show that when we are deprived of sleep – even as little as an hour – the activity in the amygdala increases and actually disconnects from the neocortex, the part of the brain in charge of rational thinking.  This is what causes us to overreact or meltdown about something that we might otherwise just blow off as not that big of a deal. 

Sleep isn’t just a time to rest our bodies. The brain has limited resources.  Sleep time is the only time the brain’s housekeepers (a.k.a. glial cells) can come in to wash away neurotoxins and dead cells that have built up throughout the day.

Little Steps to Big Successes

Research shows that only 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions actually keep them and approximately 80% give up by Valentine’s Day. To stay in the game and give your brain and your body a fighting chance, focus on small, incremental changes rather than a complete overhaul of your diet and lifestyle. Take small steps every day toward the body and brain you want to have. Before you know it, you'll be celebrating big victories!

If soda is your nemesis, start by eliminating it from lunch. Eventually, cut sodas from dinner, too. After that, make it a weekly treat, and then consider eliminating it completely.  Make fish an entrée choice once or twice a week and then kick it up to three or four. Build water breaks into your schedule throughout the day. And wine… don’t forget the wine… antioxidants, you know. ;)

Cheers to brain health!

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